The Fall of Will Smith

How The Fresh Prince lost his claim to box office royalty.

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Complex Original

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This fall, a new Will Smith movie is coming out. And I don’t know anybody who’s even remotely excited for it.

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to type that sentence. But five years into this decade, and things aren’t so wavy for The Fresh Prince. All reigns come to an end, but such a dropoff from one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading men ever is startling to look back on, especially when the ascent was so calculated. Will Smith may not have been an Industry Plant, but with a foot in the door via The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, he made some of the most carefully plotted strides to firmly plant himself in the industry. He detailed his strategy to 60 Minutes as carefully studying the top 10 films (at the time) for patterns: all 10 had special effects, 9 had special effects with creatures, 8 were a love story that implemented special effects and creatures. Analytical insight, from a guy whose biggest hits would go on to include Men in Black, Hitch and Independence Day.

In 1995, the waning days of Fresh Prince led to Bad Boys, the first stage in a two-pronged breakout along with patriotic blockbuster of our time, Independence Day (1993’s dramatic chops validating Six Degrees of Separation notwithstanding). But while those two offered a prime platform to shine, Will was but one aspect in larger narratives surrounding Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich and the respective scale, spectacle and shortcomings of both films. Men in Black was the finisher, effectively cementing his footprints in Hollywood. Here's how Peter Travers opened his review:

"Who's the man, huh?" In last summer's No. 1 blockbuster, Independence Day, Will Smith's flyboy asked that question just before slamming his fist into a slimy alien who gave him some attitude, acting all big and bad. In this summer's No. 1 joy ride, Men in Black — director Barry Sonnenfeld loads the bases with action, fantasy and laughs, and hits a grand slam — there's no need to ask the question: Will Smith is indisputably the man.​

You know the rest. For the next decade after the first Men in Black, Will Smith dominated the box office with regularity and despite rotating genres, always remaining in the same niche: the likable, charming if not roguish hero. Bankable was an understatement; bulletproof is more applicable. Baggar Vance? Borderline harmless. Wild Wild West universally sucks, but the Smith train just kept on plugging.

Then he switched up his formula, ever so incrementally. The emphasis on blockbusters remained but the tone started to stray. The change from affable to something darker began ever so slightly with I, Robot’s tortured cop, but the quick-witted sarcasm and wry quips were still there. Less can be said for I Am Legend, Smith’s turn as the lone survivor in a zombie-ridden city. Not much room for his usual jovial wave there. His answer to the burgeoning superhero craze was to play Hancock, an original, freshly conceived character, a boorish everyman drunk who only casually saves the day in between chugging 40s. Will’s roles, and subsequently his choices, got weird. And if Men in Black marked his official ascent into the A-list stratosphere, the bizarre misfire that is 2008’s Seven Pounds was the official start of his denouement.

The film debuted at #2, $5 million short of expectations, coming in as Smith’s lowest (at the time) opening since 2001. Worse yet, it was critically panned. And then Will Smith, who from 1995 until that point had at least one major blockbuster per year like clockwork, vanished. From the box office and the silver screen altogether. When he finally resurfaced in 2012, it was armed with a surefire hit in a Men in Black threequel that no one was quite clamoring for. It was a box office layup that while successful, reeked of exasperation.

It did well enough for Will to think he had regained his clout and embark on what would become his self-proclaimed “most painful failure” of his career: a hubris-fueled endeavor to both revive M. Night Shymalan’s zombified career and Trojan Horse son Jaden into his throne. The film was After Earth, the result, dismal. The movie was panned, and it debuted with a thudding $27 million opening (the budget was $130 million). And this time, there was no A-list armor bravura to hide behind: instead Smith was all penance and pleas, admitting failure and claiming he found insightful value in the experience—it freed him from emphasizing box office performance. He went as far to reveal (or perhaps, retcon) his entire career in the context of a misguided, Drake-esque desire to succeed visibly and indisputably as a form of inescapable spite to an ex-girlfriend and all others who doubted:

I was a guy who, when I was 15, my girlfriend cheated on me, and I decided that if I was number one, no woman would ever cheat on me. All I have to do is make sure that no one’s ever better than me, and I’ll have the love that my heart yearns for. And I never released that and moved into a mature way of looking at the world and my artistry and love until the failure of After Earth, when I had to accept that it’s not a good source of creation.

It’s that spite-fueled ego that led to regrettably bad decisions like turning downDjango Unchained (ostensibly in favor of After Earth) because it just wasn’t heroic enough: “Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead. [King Schultz] was the lead. “I was like, ‘No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!’”

Now, here we are in 2015, with Will apparently freed from chasing hit movies. He scored a modern hit in February’s rom-caper Focus, opposite Margot Robbie. Concussion is due out in prime Oscar bait season, but with minimal buzz. Next he’ll join the superhero movie fray properly, but one part of a large A-lister ensemble in WB’s Suicide Squad. And as Deadshot, the quippy but tortured assassin and bad guy, another light swerve from the usual Smith archetype—the bad guys are the [anti]heroes in Suicide Squad, after all. In today’s current blockbuster climate, superhero movies are nearly a guaranteed win. Meanwhile, the future suggests more sequels to proven Smith properties, namely a Bad Boys 3 and4. It would seem, to the cynical eye at least, that he isn't so much done with blockbusters than he is trying to Trojan Horse himself back onto his own throne. But add in his rumored plans to reunite with DJ Jazzy Jeff for a tour and new music after all these years, and the only thing that’s definitely not in the cards is another half-decade hiatus.

It’s funny that Django, the most bemusing role Smith turned down since his rumored rejection of Neo in The Matrix, went to Jamie Foxx instead. Foxx's whole career has been just two steps behind Will’s, from the moment his very Fresh Prince-esque sitcom debuted the same year Fresh Prince ended, but at times he's briefly lapping him—Will has yet to win an Oscar, after all. But who will succeed them? Will we ever see another Will Smith? That is to say, another black man occupying the rarefied air that only the Clooneys, Pitts and Damons dominate? Hopefully. And hopefully he learns from Will’s mistakes.

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